Friday, September 07, 2012

The politics of YPIS

Who is it who uses the expression, "your privilege is showing"? In those words, or that message phrased otherwise?

YPIS, we may imagine, is the cry of the underdog. After so much 'well, we all know how it is to have yacht troubles,' someone who sure does not will finally reach a breaking point and inform the group as much.

Or we figure it's a phrase picked up at liberal-arts colleges, once awareness has been raised of the fact that not everybody was fortunate enough to go to high school at Andover, to have parents with advanced degrees, to be white. It's born, in other words, of liberal guilt. It's liberal haves trying to create safe spaces for (largely theoretical) have-nots. As in, sure, everyone in the room has a yacht, but let's remember that if someone yacht-less were to enter, they'd feel really bad if their yachtlessness were highlighted.

Both of these are about the calling-out of cluelessness, and are ways of upholding (or introducing) political correctness. They're about alerting the oblivious to structural inequalities. In doing so, maybe they're inspiring some sort of movement to level the playing field, or maybe not. Bringing us to...

I tend to think YPIS falls further to the right of the left-right spectrum than we might think. This for two reasons. First, there's the fundamentally conservative use of YPIS, or more to the point, of the (not universally appreciated) expression, "first-world problems." It's the assumption that by verbally acknowledging privilege, inequality has been sufficiently addressed, removing the need for any social-justice concerns. It reinforces the divide between an "us" that has and a "them" that does not. It seems to be about being ill-at-ease with one's own privilege, but actually gives the impression that this privilege is in no way precarious.

Second, of course, is scrappiness oneupmanship. This is when YPIS is used to demonstrate that, while Party B is where he is in life just 'cause, Party A, you know, "built it." This is important because YPIS is generally used among those who now have, either by or on behalf of those who claim they once didn't have. Even if it's rarely the cry of the actual self-made (who, when not trying to make it as politicians, tend to play down their humble origins), YPIS is a plea in favor of self-made-ness.

All of this comes back to, and was partially inspired by, the Brooks-Douthat noblesse oblige argument. What, for some conservatives, makes a Romney better than an Obama is that a Romney knows knows knows knows knows he's privileged, whereas an Obama - who well remembers what it's like not to be in that world - maybe does not. Romney has no self-conception as scrappy, whereas Obama might.

If it's the classic cluelessness - not knowing how to do basic chores, say - then a meritocratic elite would seem to win out. But maybe not? Precisely because today's meritocrats don't get how much they have (goes the argument whose conclusion I don't buy, as I'll get to...), they don't create a stoic, austere life stage for their young. Thus, most glaringly, today's college experience. Students have the audacity to live in Target-furnished splendor.

As I see it, though, the reason meritocratic elites aren't interested in having their college-student offspring sleep on splintery boards isn't that they're trashily nouveau. It's that they understand that their status is precarious, even if it's not as precarious as all that, although In This Economy... Knowing you're from a well-established family is quite different, you-can-just-relax-wise, than knowing your parents both went to law school. Psychologically, at least. There's not the same psychological need, then, for meritocrats to embrace artificial rituals intended to mimic hardship. Even in a poorly-functioning meritocracy, there's the sense, however unfounded it may be, that one could lose everything at any time.

So does this mean that we should resign ourselves to born-leader-ish leaders, to graying Ken dolls out of Nick at Nite who gosh darn get things done? Far as I'm concerned, that doesn't really solve the YPIS issues. If the meritocrats (born-rich and otherwise) imagine they're less privileged than they really are, the patrician always-hads, for their part, tend to imagine that their own experience might be defined as "normal." This was, at any rate, my experience at school with people from Romney-like families. They on the one hand knew to feel grateful for what they had, but on the other, imagined that everyone with less was "poor." Making them, of course, middle-class. Noblesse oblige is an interesting idea, but if the nobles fail to see the gradations, if they believe anyone who can't afford to send a kid to private school is basically tragic, if this, then... And as I finish some must-do tasks now, I shall let commenters finish the thought below, or let lurkers finish it silently.


PG said...

I increasingly suspect that YPIS is a mostly online and anonymous phenomenon. I managed to get through college (albeit not a terribly liberal one) and law school (according to conservative sources, a hotbed of Marxism) without anyone who knew my name saying this to me. And I certainly said clueless things, including in print and with my photograph attached, and had people criticize me for them.

In contrast, scrappiness one-upmanship is something I often see happen offline (and not just at political conventions).

Regarding the luxuries of modern dorms*, surely it's not just an immigrant impulse to think that much of the reason you're striving so damn hard is so your children won't have to go through the same difficulties. You still want them to work hard, but in, like, air-conditioning. Even if it's not literally your own children at issue, you reasonably can think that America's a rich enough country to afford better living conditions for kids in 2012 than you had in the 3rd world in 1960.

* I do think it's sensible for colleges to cost-differentiate housing options. That one family can pay for their kid to live in Target-complementary luxury is not a good reason to make that the baseline and cause higher prices for everyone.

Phoebe said...

So you're right that the expression itself is mostly online. But the reason I added up top here that I also mean the expression in other formations is that it is used in life, just not generally in those words. People definitely *are* told that they'll never get Problem X because they grew up in such and such environment. I.e. I was using scrappiness one-upmanship and YPIS more or less interchangeably.

As for dorms, I think the thing that's artificial is the assumption that for this one life stage, and the one only, you must be physically miserable. Which brings me back to the Target thing - could you imagine the NYT writing about how fancy any other group of adults was for shopping at that store? (Which can of course get expensive, but this from a publication happy to tell us about thousand-dollar change-purses and so forth.) It kind of makes sense that we expect this of recent grads, who are (in theory) living off their own earnings. But college? There are arguments for this - most obviously that few parents can afford whichever standard of living in two homes, and if students must live in dorms, but also that the level playing field for freshman year at least is great - but it's often taken to an extreme. Do the beds need to be *that* uncomfortable? Do schools without real space issues need to have freshman sharing bedrooms? And so on.

I'm not sure the answer is having different options according to family income, though, at least when it comes to freshman. Ideal would be everyone in the same sort of housing, more or less, and it wouldn't be super-luxe, or gratuitously unpleasant, either. It's hard to say exactly where this falls, but I think there should be some balance between not having students live in squalor, and not ensuring that rich kids never ever ever have to do their own laundry.

caryatis said...

When I went to college, I was a bit shocked that students were not expected to clean the bathrooms and hallways in their dorms. I guess it'd be hard to organize/force them to do so, though.

As for comfort, why not widen the beds a bit? We know those beds are going to be shared. Twin long doesn't cut it.

Flavia said...

I agree with Phoebe about not having price-differentiated dorms. I went to a college where, not more than two generations before my arrival, this was exactly how on-campus housing worked--and some of the residences still retained rooms of wildly variable size. Back in the day, the rich kids had multi-room digs. Usually this meant a couple of reasonably-sized rooms (converted, by my time, into perfectly comfortable doubles), but a handful were spectacular floor-throughs as big as a Manhattan "classic six." Meanwhile, the scholarship kids got tiny, monastic cells in grossly inferior buildings. This is not something I'd be eager to reinstitute.

PG said...

Regarding monastic cells, at least 20 years ago if you went to Oxford and lived on campus, you quite possibly were living literally in monastic cells. Even the "newer" dorms were heated with a bar of metal attached to an electric wire.

From what I recall from a 15 years ago tour, UTexas-Austin is so overpopulated, they don't require kids to live on campus first year, but instead promise that if you want to, they will find a space for you to sleep. They have standardized "public" dorms, and then somehow also on campus they have private dorms that are much nicer. An all-girl private dorm was built by some rich guy when campus housing went "coed" in the sense that you could have men and women live in the same building. He didn't want his daughter in coed housing, so now there's a building with honest-to-god heart shapes in the gate.

UVirginia didn't have private dorms, but there were a couple of "residential colleges" that had AC and were newer than Old Dorms (built in the Depression) and New Dorms (built in the 1960s). They were a little more expensive and included enrichment activities. But in any case the most coveted housing was the Lawn, where the rooms were built by Jefferson's slaves and are still without modern heating, cooling or indoor plumbing. You become editor in chief of the newspaper, or president of the 4th year class, and your reward is having to go outside in the snow in your bathrobe to use the toilet. The last time I was there, they were tearing down the New Dorms and putting up shiny new dorms, now with AC, but the Lawn rooms will be the same 100 years from now when we just send holograms of ourselves to college.

Anyway, what's the problem with this sort of limited variety of housing? This way lower-income kids are not carrying extra debt to afford housing. At the same time, the kids who are 6th generation oil money aren't turning down your school to go somewhere with nicer housing (and taking their full-freight tuition and future alumni donation money with them). By the time you go to college, you already know the score about some people having more money than you and some having less. Even kids in the bottom 90% of the 1% usually don't have more than one room in their parents' house that's for their individual use, so the multiple-rooms thing seems a bit much, but why not price-differentiate within the individual rooms to reflect what the school pays, plus a bit of markup so there's extra money to give scholarship kids free housing?

Maybe there's a stronger argument for this at the flagship state schools than at private schools, but basically I think higher education could do with more cost-differentiation. It's too expensive for most families, but well within the budget for others. It would be problematic to differentiate tuition (beyond in-state out-of-state that's theoretically based on tax contribution) because we're all getting the same access to education. And I would NOT be OK with paying your way to jump the queue for more desirable classes, etc. So that pretty much leaves the non-educational part of college life: housing. If you mandate that everyone live in campus housing the first year, and you're spending a ton of money to fix up housing because the children born to the class of 1990 now turn up their noses at what was plenty good enough for their parents, recapture that money by only spending it on the housing the more demanding kids will occupy and that they will pay for accordingly.

Moebius Stripper said...

Years and years ago, before internets so I don't even know f it's online, TIME magazine had an article about the newfangled fancy campus housing, and someone did the math and figured out that while the fancy dorms were more expensive than the basic ones, the price difference was small enough that the basic dorms were actually subsidizing the fancy ones. Which strikes me as so unambiguously messed up that I would love to know how such a state of affairs came about in the first place.

Phoebe said...

The dorm thing, briefly:

What's wrong, you ask, with charging the rich more for fancier? To which I'd respond, what's wrong with a compromise that makes freshman housing not this way, then allows upperclassmen to rent out Versailles if they so choose, and if they can make it from there to class? The point with that policy for freshman wouldn't be to make it so by some miracle, 18-year-olds don't notice who's from a rich family and who isn't, although there'd be some of that. It can be more and less obvious who's paying for college how, or how much. It would do a number of things. It would forge social connections across socioeconomic lines, a builds-character experience for rich kids and a networking/how-to-fit-in-if-need-be-with-rich-people one for the rest. It would also make it so that material-comfort-wise, everyone gets one year of coming from the same thing, bonding over its particularities and non-homeyness.

As to your other point about how college is paid for more generally, I'm all for the rich paying more, but I don't know about doing this via fancy-dorm subsidies (do that many families really prioritize this, and are they even the wealthiest ones? this isn't just certain families, and some of the time subsidized by loans? don't lots of rich families have long college-going traditions and expect their kids to sleep on the same uncomfortable beds they did?), and more to the point, I'd have it done a different way, namely via taxes. Not that this is feasible, but it would, I think, be much better. College would be free or some nominal amount for all, but would really be paid for by the government. So rich kids parents would pay more, but not for their own personal kids' tuition. Now, it's possible that a bare-bones approach like this would mean no more on-campus housing whatsoever...

PG said...

It would do a number of things. It would forge social connections across socioeconomic lines, a builds-character experience for rich kids and a networking/how-to-fit-in-if-need-be-with-rich-people one for the rest. It would also make it so that material-comfort-wise, everyone gets one year of coming from the same thing, bonding over its particularities and non-homeyness.

But if students aren't actually sharing rooms (which I thought you opposed), how does networking/how-to-fit-in-if-need-be-with-rich-people happen? In particular, if we move toward the bare-bones model of European student life, which seems to lack the "get to know each other" events like ice cream socials and decorate-a-brick-that-will-keep-your-door-hospitably-open, why would students be networking just based on using the same stairwell to get in and out? When I lived in a university-owned apartment building in law school, I got to know the other girl in my apartment quite well of necessity, but I don't remember anyone else from my building.

Going to a taxpayer-supported model of college would bring us back to monastic cells and no ice cream, because taxpayers would -- not wholly unreasonably -- object to subsidizing more than what's absolutely necessary to produce the future workforce that will keep Social Security solvent. And maybe that's a good thing, and would reduce the quasi-adolescent-ness of college; you no longer owe your parents your education and the stern taxpayers footing the bill aren't including any extras.

I'd be curious to know how this does work for the children of the well-off in other countries. The little I know of college history in the U.S. doesn't make the current model seem too ridiculously luxurious, given that many southern schools used to expect students to bring their own slaves to campus, or like Virginia hired or bought slaves to do the cooking, cleaning and maintenance.

The middle-class-ization of college is a relatively recent phenomenon in our history -- mostly post-WWII and GI Bill. That's why the pre-WWII 20th century college novels tend to have a lot of class issues; the number of students who were non-wealthy was still small enough that they were oddities.

Phoebe said...

"When I lived in a university-owned apartment building in law school [...]"

18-year-olds living in tiny rooms do befriend their hallmates, even without outside intervention encouraging this. (So it went in Paris, at least.) But (separating out these different issues) there's no reason there couldn't be ice cream socials in a dorm that only had single rooms.

"Going to a taxpayer-supported model of college would bring us back to monastic cells and no ice cream"

Or, I suspect, no dorms whatsoever. The entire phenomenon of extra housing existing for the young but not yet self-supporting might disappear. People might just go to the closest college/university and either live at home or, if rich, in their own place.

"I'd be curious to know how this does work for the children of the well-off in other countries."

From what I understand, you might well live at home regardless of how much money your family has. Or, if your parents can afford it, they might rent or buy you a place near where you're in school.

i said...


I went to undergrad in Canada, where all universities are (last time I checked) public and subsidized by taxes. We somehow did manage to have dorms though. Not only did we have dorms, but we also had quite a bit of identification with our residences and floors, and saw a heck of a lot of each other, rich, middle class, and poor students alike. All in rooms with heaters that occasionally exploded. Of course we all pimped our rooms in our various ways (I notoriously painted one of mine dark red), but it was more about expressing ourselves than about hinting at our parents' bank account. The richer kids didn't necessarily have nicer rooms, often quite the opposite -- it was only when we went to their houses that we realised the money they had.

More importantly, in my college at least, we had a complex floor and room-assignment process in which groups of students would assemble and bid for certain desired floors, with their seniority, GPAs, and required number of frosh spaces giving a kind of total score. This involved months of intense politicking, so that floors could be arranged that joined like-minded people but also scored high enough to get the bigger rooms. Of course, since not all floors had the same number of spaces, some adjustments had to be made on the fly. And you had to know your enemies. It was fervent and wonderful, and I pity any undergrad who misses out on such a fabulous chance to learn real life problem solving and sheer Machiavellianism.